Two decades on from his ascent to power, Putin cuts a lonely figure in a political desert
Monday 9 August 1999 is a day I remember well. The weather was cloudy but warm. The air in Moscow had just become breathable again after a few unforgiving summer months of overheated buildings, dried grass, rising gasoline fumes, and melting tarmac. Now, that even layer of white cloud felt like salvation for a dusty city tired of the heat.
It was probably around midday when the news broke: President Boris Yeltsin had sacked yet another prime minister, and appointed a new one – Vladimir Putin, the then little-known director of the Federal Security Service. Importantly, Yeltsin said in an address to the nation that he viewed Putin as his successor – something that he had not said about his previous prime ministers. With the same stroke of the pen, he scheduled a parliamentary election for 19 December and confirmed that the next presidential election would take place in a year’s time.
At this stage, a handful of the Kremlin insiders must have known that that really was the plan. Moscow’s wider political class, however, reacted with a mixture of suspicion and sarcasm. Russian prime ministers had become ever more fungible in recent times: Putin followed Sergey Kiriyenko, Yevgeny Primakov, and Sergey Stepashin to become the fourth person to hold the office in just a year. Many people suspected that Yeltsin nominated Putin not as a desired successor, but as a trusted man from the security services whose support he would need to cancel the presidential election. If Yeltsin wanted to prepare for an elected successor, the argument went, he would not present the public with a virtually unknown candidate. And, in any case, the blessing of a deeply unpopular president looked set to undo anyone’s run for office.
“This is the agony of the regime”, agreed communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and liberal politician Boris Nemtsov – in a rare show of unanimity. “As a result, the authority of the Russian government in the world has been reduced to zero,” commented former prime minister Yegor Gaidar. When nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky maintained that the Duma was about to confirm a new prime minister for the last time in the twentieth century, not everyone was convinced that that would be the case. Given the way things had been going, surely Yeltsin could come up with a few more?
His regime has always been, and will remain, fragile
Among the people I spoke to that day, only analyst Andrey Piontkovsky was convinced that the president was serious, saying: “Yeltsin has made two important decisions – to go for the election, and to go with Putin.” Running a one-man think-tank that often criticised the government, Piontkovsky was by no means an insider – yet, at times, he proved to be amazingly prescient.
It took me around a year to form a clear opinion of Putin but, since then, I have never had to change my view of him. Unlike many other observers, I see Putin as someone who wants to do good for Russia (as opposed to just for himself), but his notion of what constitutes good, and how to achieve this, is misguided. He trusts top-down rules and finds it hard to believe that domestic criticism or constructive opposition can come from friends of Russia: instead, critics are enemies or their paid puppets. He believes that a few big powers run the world, guided purely by self-interest – and, therefore, that all their talk about principles is just hypocrisy. (Sometimes, I entertain myself by wondering what Russia would be like if Putin had put all his considerable energy and determination in the service of a different vision.)
His regime has always been, and will remain, fragile – as is the case with any system built on personal rule. It can stand for a long time but, ultimately, it cannot last.
Twenty years on from that molten summer in Moscow, Gaidar and Yeltsin are dead, Nemtsov has been murdered, and Piontkovsky is in exile. Yet Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky, and Putin remain pretty much where they were by the end of 1999. The world has discovered much about the regime’s behaviour, but how and when Putin’s rule will end is still an open question – even though it is palpably past its prime.
Putin and the West
“To me, Putin is first and foremost a tragic figure,” a thoughtful Finnish analyst recently said to me. And, yes, it is definitely possible to view Putin as a tragically lonely figure or as chronically misunderstood.
Putin’s relationship with the West, for instance, has been full of big and dangerous misunderstandings. Yet, in a way, these misunderstandings matter little: things would have turned sour without them, as Putin’s fundamental world view is all but incompatible with that of mainstream Western liberals.
It is easy to forget that, in his early years in power, Putin tried hard to be friendly with the West. And he was aware that his KGB past was a handicap in this. I remember him thanking Yeltsin for heading the Russian delegation to an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe summit held in Istanbul in November 1999. “Towards me”, Putin admitted, “our Western partners’ attitude would have been less good”.
A similar logic – quiet acknowledgement that his background might complicate Russia’s relationship with the West – can be seen in Putin’s instalment of Dmitri Medvedev as a president in 2008-2012. According to Russian analyst Dmitri Trenin, the whole of Medvedev’s presidency was “Putin’s attempt to see what, in principle, one can achieve with the West.”
On other occasions, Putin tried to show the West his good intentions. “In the early 2000s, Putin asked the Duma to quickly ratify many arms control treaties that the earlier Communist Party-dominated Duma had refused to consider,” recalled Russian analyst Alexei Arbatov. “That was his way of indicating that the West should value his friendliness over the Duma’s independence.”
Alas, all these attempts were doomed to collide with the West’s utterly different concept of a friendly Russia: one in which the Duma is independent, and presidents – however good their intentions – are genuinely elected, not nominated. It was a clash between the Western notion of normative convergence and Putin’s more realist, state-centric, and top-down view of world affairs, in which one can trade favours without sharing norms.
Yet another paradox is that, although Putin is largely straightforward and consistent in his statements, his habits of communication often make him hard to understand. “Why is it that, for many years, he says nothing – and then suddenly comes up with a blast like the Munich speech?”, a British thinker once asked. “And then, again, silence – and, again, a blast … why such inconsistent communication?”
It is possible that Putin does not see this as inconsistency. If he truly believes that all countries’ behaviour is motivated by power politics and that principles are mere hypocrisy, it is logical for him to play along – to use the language of hypocrisy – until emotion reveals his true views in another outburst.
And then, of course, there are special operations. “I wondered for a long time how Putin can just lie,” said one of the most thoughtful Russian analysts. “How can he tell Angela Merkel that there are no Russian troops in Crimea – and then, a year later, boast of a successful takeover operation? Until I realised that, for him, all politics is special operations.” This is probably a slight exaggeration: Putin likely believes that not all politics is special operations but that, when it is, effective lying is part of professional conduct.
These various aspects of Putin’s modus operandi – hypocrisy, special operations, and the direct use of the truth – have allowed analysts like me to earn their bread for the past 20 years. We will likely continue offering our services for as long as the regime persists. But, even so, such decoding is a poor basis for public dialogue between national leaders. Thus, misunderstandings will continue until the end of Putin’s time as well – magnified, nowadays, by the West’s domestically rooted fears.
The loneliness of a political desert
A year ago, in the lead-up to the US-Russia summit in Helsinki, I began an ultimately unsuccessful search for a literary figure whom I could compare to Putin. (His American counterpart, Donald Trump, was easy: Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter!) A while later, though, I realised that Putin strongly reminded me of the publisher of a newspaper I once wrote for. He was genuinely frustrated with his editors-in-chief for, as he saw it, lacking initiative, ideas, and imagination. Yet he completely overlooked the fact that he had sacked all the editors who possessed these qualities – and that he had done so because, sooner or later, these inconvenient people disagreed with him.
Two decades on from his ascent to power, Putin cuts a lonely figure in a political desert. Every now and then, one can feel his frustration with this. He probably wants to see the emergence of an energetic and loyal political class who will show initiative, bear responsibility, take over some of his duties, and, indeed, one day allow him to retire. But, alas, the many people out there he might choose from all seem to lack initiative, ideas, and imagination.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.